Q: Greg, I enjoy your columns on the old days of automobiles and am a big Packard fan from days gone by. I grew up in the 1950s like you did, and remember these wonderful machines during my youth. Around where I lived, if you had a Packard, you were living the good life.
I do know that the Packard failed when Studebaker joined forces with them but I’d like your opinion on this merger and also some Packard and Studebaker memories, good and bad. Thanks very much.
— Sam G., Arkansas
A: Sam thanks for your nice words and I’d be happy to answer this question.
Back when we were youngsters in the 1950s, I always looked at the wonderful Packard automobiles as top class American luxury cars that were in the Lincoln and Cadillac class. I remember that Buicks were also known for luxury, but they were below Cadillac on the GM pecking order and right above Oldsmobile. But you are correct that if your family owned a Packard, things were probably going well economically.
As the decade of the 1950s moved forward, Packard started to lose market share in the luxury car sales race. This reality led to what has to be one of the worst mergers in car history when Packard joined forces with Studebaker in 1954. Studebaker had way more dealers across the United States and the deal initially looked good.
Notable is the fact that it was the Packard front office that pursued the merger and not visa-versa as many enthusiasts initially thought. To make a long story short, the result was Packard losing its brand identity while Studebaker took over all marketing.
What Packard executives later discovered was that Studebaker “cooked the books” when presenting its financial strength disclosure, a fact that went undetected until the merger was legally solid and irreversible. (Caveat Emptor, right?)
As for some highpoints, perhaps the most beautiful Studebaker ever built was the “Hawk class” models that included the initial Golden Hawk in 1956 and then followed by the Silver Hawk, which appeared in 1957. Both were ahead of their time and respected today for outstanding two-door sport coupe styles. The initial 1956 Golden Hawk was the only Hawk powered by a Packard 352-V8. In 1957, the Packard V8 was dropped and the Studebaker design 289-inch V8 became standard in the Golden Hawk class. Notable is during its 1956-1958 production run, only 9,305 Golden Hawks were ever built.
The final “real” Packard came to market in 1956, when the company released some beautiful models. Packard’s design for 1956 included a facelift from the 1955 new generation, which replaced the famous “bathtub” Packards we came to love beginning with the post war 1948 design. Today, a 1956 Caribbean Convertible or hardtop in tri-tone color is worth big money on the collector auction stage and features Packard’s first ever overhead valve V8 that debuted in 1955.
Unfortunately, by 1957 the Packard cars were pretty much Studebakers with Packard badges and by 1958, Studebaker emerged as the sole brand that would take the company into the future. Packard officials felt that the larger Studebaker dealership network and the aforementioned “Packard badge on Studebaker built cars” would sell.
It was not to be, however.
With only a few Packards available in 1957, including a four-door sedan and a Country Sedan Wagon, consumers weren’t fooled and knew immediately that the Packards they loved in the 1940s and 1950s were now Studebakers with Packard badges. The result was Packard sales dropping to just 4,857 units, overall.
In 1958, even fewer Packards were sold and by mid-year, Packard-Studebaker announced all Packard production would cease.
Also impacting the new company was a Pan Am airline lawsuit against Packard in 1955. This lawsuit accused Packard of illegally using the names Clipper, Caribbean, Constellation, Pan American, Panama and Pacific on its cars. These were all names Pan Am used in its marketing programs and the lawsuit lasted into 1958 until Packard agreed to drop the names. Pan Am agreed to dismiss the lawsuit, although millions were already spent in defense. Also during this lawsuit era, Packard realized the “strength” of the Studebaker balance sheet was fraudulent, further complicating the new company cash flow problem.
Later, Studebaker found some profits thanks to the 1959 Lark, which debuted as a new body style on the same outdated 1958 chassis and mechanicals. The final Studebaker was built in 1966, called the Cruiser, and featured Chevrolet engines and transmissions as Studebaker had stopped driveline production in late 1965. As for trivia, there was a Studebaker Lark in the first ever 1959 Daytona 500 as Harold Smith started 50th of 59 cars and finished 31st. He was running at the finish and completed 159 of the 200 laps and won $100.
This sums up in a short column the sad tale of the Packard-Studebaker merger. Thanks for your letter and bringing back some positive and negative car memories from our childhood.
— Greg Zyla writes weekly for More Content Now and other GateHouse Media publications.